During November, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will house an exhibition examining how archivist and photographer Paul Vanderbilt (1905-1992) developed new ways of understanding the world through visual images.
"The Archive as a River: Paul Vanderbilt and Photography" will run Nov. 4-30 at the Foster Gallery in UW-Eau Claire's Haas Fine Arts Center. An opening reception will be held Thursday, Nov. 3, from 6-7:30 p.m., and a gallery talk featuring Andy Kraushaar of the Wisconsin Historical Society will take place Friday, Nov. 4, at 10 a.m.
"The Archive as a River" celebrates the work of Vanderbilt, an archivist, photographer and visionary who sought new ways to understand the world through visual images. From 1942-45, Vanderbilt worked with Roy Stryker at the Library of Congress to classify more than 200,000 photographs of tenant farmers and farm workers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. In 1954 he was hired by the Wisconsin Historical Society to curate and organize a treasure trove of images and photographs that became known as the Iconographic Collections. Vanderbilt was given what he described as “exceptional liberty to apply unorthodox ‘philosophies’ of my own” to the structure of the WHS collections. Inspired by Stryker’s approach of organizing materials around themed collections, Vanderbilt created a unique visual archive that is renowned for its depth, subtlety and flexibility.
Until his retirement in 1972, Vanderbilt also served as the field photographer for the WHS. He traveled across Wisconsin, focusing his lens on rural landscapes, architecture and small-town life. The photographs that resulted go far beyond documentation: Vanderbilt had a fine sense of composition and looked for narrative and meaning in his photography.
"We are exploring potential depths of meaning, and these particular depths are not necessarily in the photographs," Vanderbilt once said. "They are in life itself as recalled by the photographs. Photographs, in this sense, are used simply as a device for looking at the very life, ever changing, ever repeating, from which the photographs were made."
Vanderbilt pioneered new formats for presenting images from the Iconographic Collections, designed to inspire a deeper investigation into their underlying meaning. His beautiful, idiosyncratic thematic panels and pairings combine thoughtfully selected historic images with his own photographs and poetic texts. "The Archive as a River" includes large-scale reproductions of his thematic panels and pairings, a selection of Vanderbilt's own photographs of Wisconsin, and an array of artifacts and papers that reveal his innovative approach to organizing images.
This project was developed by the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in Madison, in collaboration with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Division of Library-Archives. It was co-curated by Martha Glowacki, Andy Kraushaar and Jody Clowes.
"The Archive as a River" exhibition at UW-Eau Claire is made possible through the generous support of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Foster Gallery and the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate.
The Foster Gallery is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1-4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 6-8:30 p.m. Thursdays.
Related event: "The Archive as a River" will be displayed at the Foster Gallery simultaneously with "Fauxtography: Real Photos, Fake Stories, and the Intersection of Fact and Fiction." Both exhibitions feature historic Wisconsin photography of the 19th and early 20th century.